Henri-George Clouzet is known as the French Hitchcock. He got started later than Hitchcock did, but he was able to catch up to him quite easily by taking the lessons he learned from watching Hitchcock movies and applying them to his own stories. This combined with his overwhelming cynicism has produced some of the most unrelenting thrillers ever made. The penultimate example of this twisted man’s creative output has got to be Diabolique.
Christina is a beautiful young woman with a horrible husband and a heart condition. She is stuck in a boy’s boarding school with him as the headmaster (although the school technically belongs to her) and his mistress, an equally suffering but more strikingly beautiful young woman. Her husband, Michel Delassalle, serves rotten fish to the boys, beats both lovers and gives out overly harsh punishments to everyone around him. Christina and the mistress, Nicole, are tired of this mistreatment and scheme to get rid of him. They lure him far away from a school and into a lonely boarding house in a small village. They then drug him and drown him in a bathtub. They transport him back to the school and dispose of his body in the swimming pool, making it look like a suicide attempt. But not everything goes according to plan. First off there is no body in the pool, his suit that he was wearing when he died mysteriously comes back from the dry cleaners, and the boys start saying that they saw the headmaster go up and down the stairs. The women find it harder to reconcile the things they are hearing and seeing with the knowledge that they killed him. Everything starts to spin out of control for both of them just when a detective shows up and intrudes in on their goings on. Will the detective be able to solve the mystery before anything tragic happens?
This movie is truly a master course in suspense. Throughout the whole movie you are under the impression that you know certain events happened, but did they really? Or was it a part of some magnificent scheme or the bouts of a lady so sick she has gone crazy? Clouzet leaves you hanging for so long that you almost feel like you are going to have a heart attack right alongside the protagonist. And yet Clouzet gives you clues that something isn’t quite right about the women’s murder plot. These hints didn’t become clear to me until after the inevitable conclusions happened and I was able to think through the plot. My guess is that these clues are there to interest anyone who wanted a second viewing of this masterpiece, which I inevitably wanted.
There is a famous anecdote about this movie where Clouzet bought the rights to this novel mere hours before Hitchcock tried to get a hold of it. In fact this story line seems to have right up Hitchcock’s alley. But I don’t think he could have done it any better than Clouzet did. Clouzet is able to bring a strong sense of atmosphere that betrays his intense study of Hitchcock and his intimate knowledge of corruption and evil. I think that atmosphere would have been lacking if Hitchcock was able to get a hold of this story. Based on the strength of this film alone (I haven’t seen any of Clouzet’s other efforts), I think that Clouzet shouldn’t be counted in history as merely a disciple to Hitchcock but his co-patriot.